Wanting - Luke Burgis

This book attempts to summarize René Girard’s theories of mimeses for a popular audience. The central idea is that almost everyone’s actions are driven through cycles of imitation, driven by models we have of others around us. Those models might be “celebrities” (e.g. Feynman, Elon Musk, etc) or peers (coworkers, friends, neighbors).

Unstudied mimeses can cause a kind of helpless loss of agency. I saw this at Apple, for instance, where people’s ideas of a lifestyle to aspire to were defined by their coworkers, and where they effectively (but inadvertently) competed with each other with ever fancier hobbies and toys. These negative cycles of mimeses are particularly common among peers; when one’s model is a celebrity, they don’t feel directly threatening because they’re so far away.

Positive cycles are possible, though, when someone models a non-rivalrous way of relating interpersonally—e.g. wanting to know others, cultivate others, empathize with others, help others, etc. “These leaders expand everyone’s universe of desire and help them explore it.”

One key point, which I think is valuable and underrated, is that we should worry about social media not because it’s stealing our attention or spreading fake news—but rather because it’s distorting our perception of what to want.

The danger is not recognizing models for what they are. When we don’t recognize them, we are easily drawn into unhealthy relationships with them. They begin to exert an outsize influence on us. We often become fixated on them without realizing it. Models are, in many cases, a person’s secret idol.

You probably follow at least a few people who function as unhealthy models of desire for you. It might be an acquaintance or former colleague, someone you follow on social media, or maybe even a former classmate whose career you’ve followed through the years. You need to know what they’re up to. You care what they think. You care what they want.

It’s critical to distance yourself from the force they exert on you. Unfollow them. Don’t ask about them. If you check up on them every day, then start by going at least a week before you check again. If you check on them every week, then go at least a month.

Have you noticed that goals have an irreproachable and unimpeachable status? You want to run an ultramarathon? People will applaud your determination. Run for city office? You have their support. Sell your home and move into the back of a van? Cool, essentialism is in. Nobody will question your goals.

The prolific letter-writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton noticed this was happening to him during his college years at Columbia University. Later in life, he wrote: “The true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent.”

Thick desires are like diamonds that have been formed deep beneath the surface, nearer to the core of the Earth. Thick desires are protected from the volatility of changing circumstances in our lives. Thin desires, on the other hand, are highly mimetic, contagious, and often shallow.

I believe the purpose of work is not merely to make more but to become more. The value of work cannot be measured by the objective output of a job alone; it must take into account the subjective transformation of the person who is working.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that {spirituality} is simply “{what happens when we open ourselves to something greater than ourselves.}”

Q. What interview question does Burgis ask to extract people’s thick desires?
A. Tell me about a time when you did something well and it brought you a sense of fulfillment. (“Fulfillment story”)

Last updated 2023-07-13.